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What Is Popcorn?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 16, 2024
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Popcorn is a special type of corn grain, generally not edible like other styles of corn like white or yellow corn on the cob. Instead of being eaten off the cob, popcorn is usually stripped from the cob and then heated in a pan until the inside literally breaks through the tough hull, creating fluffy, crunchy kernels. This type of corn is a new world food, and its seeds have been found in archaeological digs that date back several thousands of years.

Archaeologists have found these kernels in popped form that carbon dating show to be at least 1000 years old. In this respect, Native Americans were considerably lucky; they got to enjoy popcorn much sooner that did the rest of the world. The first Europeans to taste popped corn were likely the pilgrims, who were introduced to the crunchy stuff by local Native American tribes.

Today, popcorn is popular the world over, with literally hundreds of hybrids available. People are often used to eating this grain either popped in the microwave, or from air poppers. Recent studies have indicated that the powders used in microwave popcorn, may be unsafe, and trend in designing microwave styles tends now toward developing different butter flavor variants. Another way we eat and enjoy popped corn is at movie theaters. This type of corn is cooked in the much more traditional way, though Native Americans certainly didn’t have popped corn machines. The seeds are cooked in hot oil until they burst from a small pan, filling up popcorn machines.

You can certainly attempt this method at home on a smaller scale, and popped corn enthusiasts suggest it still yields the best and crunchiest kernels, provided you get the heat right. In a medium sized pot, coat the bottom with a little oil, allowing it to heat. Add about a half cup, just enough to cover the pan of kernels, and then move the pan back and forth over the heat source. Heat has to be just right and will vary from stove to stove. Too little heat results in the corn partially steaming, producing soggy kernels instead of crunchy ones. Alternately the corn may burn over high heat before it gets a chance to cook. Some people only use salt to pop their corn; this method actually will work, though oil tends to work a little better.

You should always remember when you’re cooking corn on the stove to keep a lid on your pot. If you don’t you can actually get hurt. The kernels can explode with great ferocity, quickly flying all over your kitchen and actually hitting you, causing burns. Standard method for avoiding this is to keep the kernels covered until you hear the majority of the kernels burst; then remove the kernels from heat. Wait about 20 seconds before uncovering the pot because there are usually several more kernels that will still pop.

There are two styles of popped corn, producing different shaped popped effects. Most popped corn will exhibit both styles. They will produce some popped kernels that look like butterflies, and others that are round and are sometimes called mushroom-shaped. You can buy kernels that produce only one type, but more often, you’ll have two different shapes in your popped corn.

In popcorn history, an interesting early fact is that movie theaters did not at first sell popped corn. Instead vendors outside the theater would sell it, and theater owners really resented it, because it made such a mess in the theater. Eventually, customer desire for this puffy grain won out and owners invited vendors inside to sell their wares. Finally, owners got rid of vendors and created movie concession stands so they could make the most profit on popcorn, candy, and drinks.

By itself, popped corn is low in fat and high in dietary fiber. A half a cup (about 100 grams) that is air popped and doesn’t include butter can include 15 grams of dietary fiber. Really, the main reason that popcorn can be viewed as a fatty food is because it is frequently covered in butter, oversalted, and cooked in high fat oils. If you keep it simple, and add just a little salt, you can actually consider popped corn an excellent diet food and a great way to meet your daily needs for dietary fiber.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon997364 — On Dec 26, 2016

About 29 years ago I picked up a kernel of popcorn and saw something in that kernel that started me painting. I paint famous people, animals, funny characters among others. I see in popcorn what we sometimes all see in clouds and by using fine tipped markers I am able to bring my art to life.

In 1990 the folks at Ripley's ''Believe It Or Not!'' discovered what I do and purchased about 40 of my popcorn artworks that are on display at the Ripley's museums all around the world.

I have appeared on all news channels in the Dallas/Fort Worth area as well as CNN, newspapers, and magazines. Just thought that this one of a kind art would be appealing to the animation industry or popcorn companies that want to promote their products . I have hundreds of interesting characters or caricatures all painted on one single kernel of popcorn.

''Popcorn is nature's work of art.'' -- Harry K.

By anon975156 — On Oct 24, 2014

When I was a kid, the new thing was stovetop popcorn, the kind you popped over a stove eye while shaking the aluminum pan. The popped kernels would push up on an aluminum bag until it was ready to be buttered up and served. I never had much luck with that method, though. I burned up a few pans while trying to get it right.

The next big thing was hot air popcorn poppers. You put the popcorn kernels into a hopper and the popper would generate air hot enough to pop the kernels without using any oil. The popped kernels would get blown into a bowl, and a little tray at the top of the popper held melted butter. It was a lot more foolproof than the heated oil technique, but the popcorn could taste a little dry sometimes.

Finally, there was microwaveable popcorn. The oil in the bag solved the dryness problem, and the power of the microwave reduced the total cooking time down to two or three minutes. I thought microwave popcorn was the way to go for a while, but it still has its own problems. If you leave the bag in the oven too long, it will smoke out the entire house. There are some chemicals used in the process that aren't exactly healthy, either.

By anon297589 — On Oct 16, 2012

Popcorn, if bought from the right company can be healthy, not fattening.

By cafe41 — On Dec 18, 2010

SurfNturf-I love popcorn. I really enjoy the gourmet popcorn tins. I especially love the cheddar popcorn and the caramel.

There is a company called Dale and Thomas that Oprah even loves that sells the best gourmet popcorn ever.

They sell a cinnamon crème drizzle corn, a peanut butter and white chocolate drizzle corn, a double chocolate and a Biscotti drizzle corn just to name a few.

Even if you are not crazy about popcorn, you will certainly love these flavors. They are so rich that you forget that you are eating popcorn.

By suntan12 — On Dec 16, 2010

Catapult43- I think that there are plenty of popcorn brands on the market that are low in fat. I love the Orville Redenbacher popcorn Kettle corn.

It is 94% fat free and has a sweet and salty taste. I usually buy the small mini bags because they are very filling. My kids love this popcorn brand too. I think the Orville popcorn is best.

I have tried the Act ii popcorn but I don’t like it as much as the Orville brand. I noticed that in the movie theater they are offering popcorn seasoning for your popcorn. I think that is a great idea. They have chocolate, cheddar, and caramel seasonings for the popcorn. These are must have popcorn supplies.

By catapult43 — On Nov 17, 2008

I agree that popcorn is a healthy snack, low in calories and high in fiber. However, it is best when eaten naked if you are health conscious.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a DelightedCooking contributor, Tricia...
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